The History Of Furby, The Electronic Pet That Took The Late '90s By Storm
In the fall of 1998, something new arrived on toy scene, and it’s never been quite the same since. I’m talking, of course, about Furby — that colorful, Mogwai-esque, nonsense-gabbling creature that became the “It” toy of the era. The history of the Furby, however, is much deeper than you might expect; indeed, in order to get the full story, we actually have to look at three separate stories. Because it was a team of three people who were ultimately responsible for bringing the furry, electronic pet to life: David Hampton, Caleb Chung, and Richard C. Levy. But it was a long, long road from the start to where we are now — and, as 2016’s relaunch of the toy proved, that road might not even be over yet.
According to a 1998 profile in the New York Times, Hampton spent his childhood in Michigan messing around with electronics. He started by fixing broken radios for neighbors; at 13, he got a job in a television repair shop; and not too long after that, he built a ham radio. He graduated from high school in 1970 and enlisted immediately in the Navy specifically so he could study electronics. He spent eight years in the service, specializing in aviation electronics, traveling a ton, and picking up a variety of languages including Japanese, Thai, Chinese, and Hebrew as he went. After he got out, he landed several jobs in Silicon Valley, a couple of which were in toy development; indeed, he did a stint with Mattel, where he met Caleb Chung. Eventually, he broke off and created a design and consulting company of his own.
Chung, meanwhile, didn’t have a formal education in electronics; he said in a 2014 interview with filmmaker Gregory Green that he graduated high school, but also that his family was low income and subsequently moved around a lot when he was a kid. But as a result of us upbringing, he also said he “didn’t grow up with boundaries in my thinking” — which helped him cultivate terrific skills in thinking outside the box.
It's easy to see how these two guys might come together to create something cool — and in the late '90s, that's exactly what they did.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Furby was in part inspired by an earlier ‘90s-era electronic pet: The Tamagotchi. In early 1997, Hampton and Chung saw the Tamagotchi in action for the first time at the annual Toy Fair trade show in New York — and while there was no denying how cool the idea was, one big issue Hampton spotted with the Tamagotchi according to the New York Times profile was the fact that you couldn’t pet it.
So he and Chung set out to design an electronic companion you could pet. The working name for the toy was was “Furball.” It spoke in a mishmash of the languages Hampton had picked up while he was in the Navy.
Want to see the very first Furby? Check out the video of Chung’s interview with Gregory Green. At the 3:10 mark, he brings out the first one ever built, along with the design book with all the schematics and notes that went into actually creating the thing:
When it came time to license the concept, Hampton and Chung brought aboard Richard C. Levy. According to a biography on the Lemelson-MIT Program website, Levy matriculated from Boston’s Emerson College — but his degree, which he earned in 1968, wasn't in electronics. It was in television and cinematography. After he graduated, he spent a number of years promoting feature films, including 30 for Paramount, and eventually founded his own company aimed at producing films and television documentaries.
But he didn’t stay working in film forever. He was appointed to the Senior Executive Service in 1980 and later went on to become one of the principal architects of the WORLDNET satellite network. In his spare time (I know, I know — what spare time?), he had also begun inventing things — mainly toys and games.
With his background in both marketing and invention, Levy was a natural fit for the Furby project; it was thanks to his efforts that the trio struck a licensing deal with Tiger Electronics in 1997, according to a 2012 interview with Levy in Inventor’s Eye. Not too long after that, Tiger was acquired by Hasbro, who gave the team resources they had only been able to dream about before in order to develop the product; and then, in October 1998, Furby made its public debut at New York’s fabled FAO Schwarz toy store.
The store had 35,000 Furbies backordered by the end of the week.
To say Furby was a hit is putting it incredibly mildly. In 1998, 1.8 million Furbies were sold, according to TIME (and remember, it was only available for a few months at the end of that year, which makes the number even more impressive); then, in 1999, the total number skyrocketed to 14 million. Although the toy itself initially only cost around $35, resellers routinely offloaded them to eager customers for hundreds of dollars. By the end of the toy's first three years, 40 million Furbies had been sold, according to Gizmodo.
Like all fads, though, Furby didn’t retain its popularity for more than a few years. Although an updated version was launched in 2005, it sold poorly, and by 2007, the toy had all but vanished from shelves. (By that point, Webkinz were the hot new thing.) Some blame the oversaturation of the market for the original Furby’s eventual downfall — that is, there may just have been too many varieties of Furby available, which ultimately resulted in supply far exceeding demand — although it’s also possible that what made the toy cool also made it kind of creepy: On the one hand, it was almost like it was alive; and on the other, it was… almost like it was alive.
As Caleb Chung put it in the 2014 interview he did with Gregory Green, “Furby was a big hit because it, on purpose, was made to let you believe it was alive. All electronic toys up to then were ‘Squeeze my hand, I’ll count to 10’ … a very self-centered toy. And so, it became human in a way that other products hadn’t been. It became human and present.” However, that human-like presence may also have driven people away from it: “And people thought that was scary and weird and freaky, because it encroaches on being human,” Chung added. Furby doesn't exactly look like a person, but there's something of the uncanny valley about it all the same.
Several years later, though, another attempt was made to reboot the Furby, giving the toy a ton of new technical capabilities — and this one, which came out in 2012, was a hit. While the original Furby could adjust its personality slightly depending on how it was treated, according to the Furby Wikia, by and large, there was only one type of Furby you’d ultimately end up with — a calm and friendly one. The 2012 Furby, however, incorporated a convention familiar to fans of the Tamagotchi: Depending on how you raised your Furby, it could develop into one of several different personalities. If you skip to the 1:06 mark of the video below, you can witness a Furby personality change in action — although fair warning: It’s a little bit terrifying:
The 2012 Furby also featured more expressive LCD eyes instead of robotic ones, as well as smartphone app compatibility — both firsts for the line. Now wonder it cost $54 a pop. (Although, to be fair, if you account for inflation, that's actually not that much of a jump from the original Furby's price in 1998 — a good inflation calculator reveals that the spending power of $54 in 2012 was about the same as the spending power of $38 in 1998.) Despite the hefty price tag, though, it earned itself many favorable reviews — enough for a few more versions to come along in the years to come.
In spring of 2013, we saw the arrival of the Furby Party Rocker; sort of like a mini-Furby, it didn’t have quite as many capabilities as its larger counterpart, but had the advantage of being set in their personalities rightout of the box. More impressive, though, was the Furby Boom, which arrived that summer. Basically a souped-up version of the full-sized 2012 Furby, the Furby Boom had “lots more content,” “all new personalities,” “new bold pattern designs,”and a “new immersive app experience” in comparison with the 2012 edition, according to an FAQ from Hasbro’s website. The toy was also given the capability to remember both its own name, and the names of other Furbies.
Furblings — essentially baby Furbies — launched in 2014, although they could be played with on their own, they were at their best when paired with a Furby Boom. (I see what you did there, Hasbro.) They were tiny — about the size of a baseball — but they could interact with the Boom, as well as the Furby Boom app. They were not, however, compatible with earlier models of the toy, so you were out of luck if your only Furby was from 2012 or earlier.
And 2016, of course, saw the release of the most recent Furby: The Furby Connect. Like the 2012 and 2013 editions, this one, which is still available for purchase, is app-compatible — but the app is huge now, encompassing a whole virtual world for your Furby to interact with. I mean that literally, by the way; the app is called Furby World Connect. It's now central to the experience, rather than auxiliary; the Furbies don’t change personality anymore, but you can watch videos and listen to music with them through the app, hatch and care for Furblings through it (yep — Furblings have gone virtual), and build an entire village for your furry pets in it. Furby Connects also receive regular updates via the app, so new content is being added all the time.
As you might have guessed, all these bells and whistles means the Furby Connect is a lot costlier than previous editions; when it debuted, its price was set at nearly $100. For comparison purposes, $100 in today’s money was equivalent to about $66 in 1998 — so no matter which way you slice it, Furby Connect is a big step up from the 1998 Furby in cost. The good news, though, is that at many stores where they're still available, they're on sale — so at least there's that!
But some still long for the days of the old-school Furby — so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s quite a market for vintage Furbies. eBay even has an entire guide how to buy vintage Furbies; there are, it turns out, quite a lot of factors that will affect an old Furby’s price on the resale market, ranging from condition to rarity and demand, and it literally pays to brush up on them. (Also, watch out for counterfeit Furbies, because yes, that is a thing.)
Only time will tell if the Furby boat has officially sailed, or whether we’ll see even more new editions in the future — but if one thing’s for sure, it’s this: We’ll never tire of our electronic pets. How else do you explain Hatchimals and Fingerlings? Each new generation has its own version of this style of toy — but Furby was the OG.
Thanks for the memories, you weird yet lovable fuzzballs.